As the Nov. 5 referendum gets closer, I have been thinking a lot about the community’s ongoing support for Litchfield Public Schools.
This has never been more apparent than during the past year, as residents have come together to share their ideas and priorities on how to manage the difficult challenges of our aging school buildings and operating budget.
Whether through one of several listening sessions, our community-wide survey or the Community Task Force, many Litchfield residents helped shape the plan that the school board put forward for voters to consider. I am grateful for everyone who worked through the long meetings, difficult questions and complicated issues.
Throughout the process, it was clear to me that residents were united by a clear purpose – how to provide a better education and quality of life for our children.
Given that this is my last column before Election Day, I thought it would be a good time to review the challenging factors that school board members considered when forming this school plan.
As I have stated before, our school facilities that have fallen behind while federal and state education funding has not kept up with rising costs. Over the years, we have made some difficult budget cuts that led to larger class sizes as well as diminished services and programs. Despite these moves, Litchfield schools still faced an operating deficit of $515,000 last year as costs continue to rise.
Further, the district’s school buildings are underserving our children. At the Litchfield Middle School and High School, classrooms can’t adequately support vocational and tech programs because of antiquated class designs or lack of space for equipment and work activity. The high school pool is too small to host sectional meets and isn’t handicap accessible. The locker rooms and weight rooms are not big enough to serve all students.
At Lake Ripley Elementary, space is so misaligned that we have been using the gymnasium as the cafeteria. Special Education is held in an area that was originally locker rooms and showers.
Mindful of these difficulties and the community’s feedback, the school board decided to ask Litchfield voters to consider three ballot questions. The first ballot question seeks to increase the operating levy by $625 per pupil, which would add $1.041 million to the district’s operating budget.
The second ballot question asks for $33 million to remodel our existing school buildings to better serve students and make them more safe, healthy and secure. The third ballot question – which is contingent on questions 1 and 2 being approved - seeks $11.4 million for a new competitive pool at the high school along with an expanded weight room, fitness spaces and an additional soccer field.
Here’s a quick summary of the plan for our schools if the three ballot questions are approved.
- Right-sizing the budget: The increase in our operating budget would ensure students have the educational materials they need while protecting our class sizes, activities and athletics from future budget cuts.
- Better classroom design and more space: New classrooms will provide extra room for students and equipment, special education areas will be remodeled, and other spaces will be redesigned for more collaborative learning. Further, we will have modernized spaces to support programs for industrial tech, art and family and consumer sciences.
- Safe and secure buildings: Security systems will be enhanced at every school building, and traffic flow will be improved around the schools and parking lots.
- Needed maintenance to extend the life of our buildings: Students, teachers and staff will enjoy better air quality and more reliable environmental controls. Lake Ripley Elementary will get a new roof.
- Community connections: If all three questions are approved by voters, the high school will get an addition for a new pool that would be designed as the first phase of a possible larger community pool and recreation center for all Litchfield residents. School district officials are working with the mayor and other community leaders on this initiative.
Let me take a moment to describe the tax impact of the school plan, which depends on the value of your property and which ballot questions are approved. For a home valued at $137,000, question one’s passage would lead to an increase of $11.84 per month; question two would be $9.53 per month; and question 3 would be $5.53 per month.
This is an important decision for our community, and we want to be sure you have all the information you need to make an informed decision. I encourage everyone to visit www.DragonProud.org, a website we created to explain the school plan and answer questions about referendum. You will find details about the plan, the needs of our schools, an FAQ and a tax calculator that can help you determine the tax impact on your property.
We want all residents to continue to be a part of this process. If you have any questions, you can reach me at email@example.com or call 320-894-4098.
Early voting is open through Nov. 4th weekdays from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m at the Meeker County Auditor’s Office.
Polls are open on Election Day, Nov. 5, from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. at St. Phillips Church, 821 E. 5th Street, Litchfield.
Every vote is important, so please be sure to cast your ballot!
As always, we are Dragon Proud!